Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has said she does not care about status or identity when it comes to prosecuting suspected criminals.
“Lady Justice is actually blind,” the Atlanta-area prosecutor told MSNBC last year, dismissing the perception that certain high-ranking officials are “immune” to accountability.
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“If you come into my community and you commit a crime, you deserve to be held responsible.”
Now, Willis has brought a fourth set of criminal charges against former United States President Donald Trump over accusations that he tried to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results.
The sprawling 98-page indictment issued late on Monday listed 19 defendants and 41 criminal counts in all. All of the defendants were charged with racketeering, which is used to target members of organised crime groups and carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
Mark Meadows, Trump’s former White House chief of staff, and lawyers Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman were among those charged.
“Rather than abide by Georgia’s legal process for election challenges, the defendants engaged in a criminal, racketeering enterprise to overturn Georgia’s presidential election result,” Willis said at a press conference.
Trump and the other defendants have until noon EDT (1600 GMT) on Friday, August 25, to surrender voluntarily, rather than face arrest, Willis said. She said she intends to try all 19 defendants together.
The case has thrust Willis into the national spotlight. Trump himself has lashed out against the prosecutor in recent days, repeatedly calling her “phoney”.
“This one-sided grand jury presentation relied on witnesses who harbor their own personal and political interests,” Trump lawyers Drew Findling, Jennifer Little and Marissa Goldberg said in a statement.
But legal experts and former colleagues describe the 51-year-old as a confident prosecutor and stern litigator who is unlikely to be shaken.
“I refuse to fail,” Willis told The Wall Street Journal last month.
Willis, a Democrat, was elected in 2020 to serve as the top prosecutor in Georgia’s most populous county, which includes the state capital, Atlanta.
Weeks after taking office in February 2021, she sent a letter to top state officials announcing that she would investigate efforts to interfere in the 2020 presidential election in the state. She did not name Trump, a Republican.
But the announcement came shortly after US media reported on a January 2021 phone call, during which Trump pushed a Georgia election official to “find” 11,000 votes so he could win the state.
“This investigation includes, but is not limited to, potential violations of Georgia law prohibiting the solicitation of election fraud, the making of false statements to state and local governmental bodies, conspiracy, racketeering, violation of oath of office and any involvement in violence or threats related to the election’s administration,” Willis wrote at the time.
Trump has been falsely claiming that widespread fraud led to his loss to Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 vote, and he had called on top Republicans in key states to back his allegations.
Trump, who alongside federal election interference charges is also facing two other criminal indictments, has denied any wrongdoing.
“Those who rigged & stole the election were the ones doing the tampering, & they are the slime that should be prosecuted. I made a perfect phone call of protest. Why wasn’t this fake case brought 2.5 years ago? Election interference!” Trumpwrote on his Truth Social platform.
The criminal charges, brought against the front-runner in the race for the Republican nomination for the 2024 presidential election, include allegations that he violated an anti-organised crime law known as the Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law.
While such a prosecution can be complex, Willis is known for pursuing RICO charges, which she said allow for a more complete picture of criminal cases.
A divorced mother of two, Willis grew up mostly in Washington, DC, with her father, whom she describes as a criminal defence attorney and former Black Panther. She attended Howard University, a historically Black university in the US capital, and earned a law degree from Emory University in Atlanta.
She worked as a lawyer before joining the Fulton County district attorney’s office as an assistant prosecutor. Eventually, she challenged and unseated her former boss, Paul Howard, as the county’s top prosecutor.
Willis, however, faced criticism from social justice activists and election rivals in 2020 for receiving an endorsement and campaign contributions from a major police union during her campaign. Police unions often defend officers involved in misconduct.
Moreover, critics have said that her prolonged investigations can leave suspects in jail for a long time without trial.
“She’s really a tough-on-crime liberal, which is kind of a rare bird these days, but I think that’s her brand,” Georgia State University law Professor Anthony Michael Kreis told The Associated Press news agency.
Trump has accused Willis of overseeing an uptick in violent crime in Atlanta. The city — like other major urban centres — saw an increase in crime after 2020 after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. But over the past year, rates of violent crime like murder, rape and aggravated assault have declined.
For her part, Willis has been tight-lipped about the Trump case. This week, she directed her staffers to not respond to the former president’s attacks, which include a television advertisement accusing her of being “incompetent” and “corrupt”.
“You may not comment in any way on the ad or any of the negativity that may be expressed against me, your colleagues, this office in coming days, weeks or months,” she wrote in an email obtained by The Associated Press.
“We have no personal feelings against those we investigate or prosecute and we should not express any. This is business, it will never be personal.”